A Birmingham Community’s Spiritual Journey
By Will Howard
The goal, or telos, of the services at St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a corporate journey into the Kingdom of God. This one-hundred-year-old congregation is located in the Birmingham’s Glen Iris neighborhood. The community celebrated their traditions and kept them alive even through the Covid-19 pandemic. I observed several of their services in spring 2018 via Facebook, although they did have limited in person attendance.
St. George is the only Melkite Church of Antioch in the state of Alabama and one of only forty-eight Melkite churches in the United States. As Greek Catholics, Melkites worship according to the Byzantine liturgical tradition, just like Greek Orthodox, but they are in full communion with the Roman Pope. Arabic-speaking Christians from Syria and other parts of the Levant brought the Melkite church to the United States in the late nineteenth-century. St. George is celebrating its centennial in 2021. Originally, the congregants were primarily workers of the iron industry, as well as merchants and store owners and other supportive trades. Now they pursue a variety of professions in Birmingham. The tag line of congregation’s welcome statement expresses their identity: “Middle Eastern roots…Southern heritage…welcoming everyone.”
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It would be difficult to unpack any service at St. George’s without first observing the worship space. The church building, constructed in 1957, is a modernist box with sharp angles and tall columns at the entrance. The most striking exterior features are the stained-glass windows enclosing the nave, the icon of St. George over the main door, and the bell tower that stands tall over the St. George campus.
As part of the Eastern Catholic tradition, St. George prominently features icons on the inside of the building. The depiction of Jesus and Mary, centered in the apse above the iconostasis at the east end of the church, focuses the congregation on the sanctuary driving home the message that the church is a universal body that has existed for centuries and will continue to journey together until the Kingdom is fully realized on earth. The altar, located behind the iconostasis, is hidden during much of the liturgy. The sanctuary mirrors the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem and signifies the presence of the Lord in the worship of the body of Christ. (For more on this building’s iconography see this 2019 post on Magic City Religion.)
Ethos of Worship at St. George
The ethos, or character, of liturgies at St. George’s is the celebration of the mystery of the Lord. This can be seen not just the terms the church uses in reference to different elements of the liturgy (e.g., “mystery of the Eucharist”), but also in the atmosphere that is created inside the building to enhance the worshiper’s experience. Throughout the most of the services I observed, the overhead lights in the church were turned off, leaving the building lit by only the candles at front of the sanctuary. This directs focus to the priest, as he leads the congregation through the Divine Liturgy, but obscures his individuality. His vestments serve the same purpose. They reinforce the emphasis on the corporate church.
Another element of the service that contributes to the atmosphere is the usage of incense. It is used symbolically to show prayers being offered to God. One of the most obvious elements of the space that is used to accomplish the journey of the church is the iconography. “Windows to Heaven” is a phrase commonly used to describe the icons of the eastern tradition. The icons remind worshipers that they are joined in their worship by the saints in heaven. The iconostasis, or icon screen, also shield the altar from the congregation in the nave.
Telos of Worship at St. George
The telos of the services at St. George’s is a corporate journey into the Kingdom of God. This is has become evident in my study of Byzantine and Eastern theology, the different elements of their liturgy, and how space used for worship. The Divine Liturgy builds to Eucharist, the presentation of the bread and wine that show the flesh and blood of Christ. Lester Ruth’s term “cosmic story” is useful to describe the content of the Divine Liturgy (Ruth 2002, 47). The readings and prayers are all about the “Kingdom of God,” “God’s people,” and “the church,” with very little focus on the individual.
In the same way, the hymns, prayers, and other recited works that echo through the building all declare who the character and mystery of God. Father Alexander wrote in the For the Life of the World, that the liturgy of the Eastern churches has a transformative power over the community that partake in it (Schmemann 1973, 31). When defining the Greek word leitourgia, he said “it means an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals” (Schmemann 1973, 25).
Personally, the reverence and humility of the Divine Liturgy is something I have come to appreciate. The ancient hymns and timeless style of icons and devices used in the service created a sense that the service was transcendent of time and space. The congregation was entering into the heavenly choirs and the practices of all the saints who had come before. All this led to the celebration of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
Although we worship and honor God in our services in Western Protestant churches, there can be a tendency to simplify or fit God into a box so that we might understand. While in the Divine Liturgy, the focus on the mystery of God and glorifying him because he is incomprehensibly awesome and praiseworthy presents an appropriate posture worship.
St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Location: 425 16th Avenue South Birmingham, AL 35205
Services Observed: Presanctified Liturgy for St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, March 10
Divine Liturgy, March 14 and 28
Video Archives: https://www.facebook.com/watch/StGeorgeMelkite/
About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://www.saintgeorgeonline.org/the-wayreligious-education
Ruth, Lester. 2002. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship.” In The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Todd E. Johnson, 33-51. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the Life of the World. NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
The iconostasis. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2021, from http://saintannmelkite.org/the-iconostasis/
The Orthodox faith – Volume II – worship – the Divine Liturgy – Blessed is the Kingdom. (n.d.).Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodoxfaith/worship/the-divine-liturgy/blessed-is-the-kingdom
Will Howard ‘23 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 21, 2021.